Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a ground-focused grappling martial art where practitioners aim to submit their opponents using joint locks, strangles and chokes from controlling positions. It was adapted from judo and Japanese Jiu Jitsu in the early 1900s in Brazil by the Gracie family, which explains its name.
A typical BJJ match will start from the standing position, with both practitioners trying to take each other to the ground, pass each other’s defenses, gain a dominant position and then apply a submission.
See the below example of what a takedown into a dominant position might look like:
There is no striking in modern Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, although some recent competitions such as Combat Jiu-Jitsu allow open palm strikes when the fight moves to the ground.
Modern Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teaches practitioners to move from less advantageous positions to positions that give them the ability to safely control and submit their opponent. The mount position is one example of an advantageous position.
It also teaches practitioners the guard position, which is where a practitioner holds an opponent between their legs while on their back.
In BJJ, submissions can occur along most of the body including the arms, shoulders, neck, knees, feet and wrists. There are exceptions for particularly dangerous submissions or certain body parts like the fingers.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has become a popular martial art since it emerged from Brazil and was shown to be effective in the first UFC in 1993.
The below graph shows how popular searches for “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu” have been on Google since 2004. Searches are now higher than Muay Thai, and are close to judo.
Why is it called “Jiu Jitsu”?
Jiu jitsu is a Japanese term that translates roughly to “yielding art” or “gentle art”. This encapsulates the objective of jiu jitsu, which is to use your opponent’s force against them rather than fighting force with force.
Jiu translates to gentle, yielding, soft or flexible.
Jutsu translates to art or technique.
According to John Danaher and Renzo Gracie’s Book Mastering Jiu Jitsu, the principle of jiu jitsu is “the employment of intelligence and skill to overcome brute strength and aggression.”
Strength is still used in jiu jitsu, but it’s used efficiently and with strategy.
Is it jiu jitsu, jujitsu or jujutsu?
In Mastering Jiu Jitsu, the authors mention that jiu jitsu, jujitsu and jujutsu are all correct spellings of the word. The different spellings are the result of translation errors that emerged as the art made its way to the west from Japan.
How Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu emerged in Brazil in the 1920s after a unique set of circumstances.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the founder of modern judo, Jigoro Kano, encouraged his high ranked judo practitioners to travel around the world and showcase judo to expand its reach.
One of Kano’s students, Mitsuyo Maeda, traveled to the USA and Europe and took part in challenge matches against different martial artists and emerged victorious in many of them.
Eventually, Maeda made his way to Brazil, continuing to fight challenge matches against all takers in public events, including striking martial artists. He was also known as “Count Koma” or “Count Comde”.
In the book Mastering Jiu Jitsu, the authors mention that Maeda adapted his fighting style in order to beat the experienced strikers he was facing against. He closed the distance between his opponents using elbow strikes and low kicks, clinched with his opponents and then threw them to the ground where they had no experience. Then he would pin and submit them.
Maeda’s success eventually led him to become a wealthy man, and he opened an academy.
He soon befriended a local politician named Gastao Gracie, and in 1920 began teaching Gastao’s son Carlos his style of grappling, which fused judo, Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Maeda’s own experience in the ring.
Starting in 1925, Carlos and then later his brother Helio began to teach this modified style of grappling, which focused on ground techniques and live sparring. They later started to compete against challengers in public matches.
Due to their smaller stature, the Gracies further modified techniques to fully utilize leverage. Because most of their matches required them to fight from their backs, they also optimized this part of their game.
As a result of their experience in challenge matches, they made other modifications too. They realized that pinning an opponent wasn’t enough to make them give up, so they removed this as a victory condition. They started to learn that certain positions like back control were more advantageous than others, and started to create the modern points system that BJJ uses today.
By the 70s, members of the Gracie family had began to travel to the USA and teach jiu jitsu.
In the 90s, the Gracie family started to move BJJ onto the world stage by participating in and winning fights in high profile mixed martial arts (MMA) promotions.
In 1993, Helio’s son Royce Gracie fought in and won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in Denver, Colorado. Carlos’ grandson Renzo Gracie won a number of MMA fights in this period too including multiple Pride FC bouts and the World Combat Championship.
Rickson Gracie, one of Helio’s older sons, won matches in Vale Tudo Japan and Pride FC.
By the late 90s, international grappling competitions like the Mundials and ADCC were being held.
The martial art has continued to grow in the 2000s, with new organizations like Sport Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (SJJIF) emerging in 2012 with the aim to make BJJ an Olympic sport. New rulesets have continued to be experimented with like the Eddie Bravo Invitational in 2017.
At the time of writing in 2023, BJJ has a thriving competition scene and many successful practitioners in mixed martial arts promotions like the UFC.
What happens in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
A typical jiu jitsu roll or competition match starts from standing, with both opponents trying to bring their opponent to the ground either through a takedown. Sometimes a roll will also start with both practitioners on their knees.
Practitioners can also take their opponent to the ground using a guard pull, which is when a practitioner defensively brings their opponent to the ground and “pulls” them into their guard.
Once on the ground, practitioners generally try to gain advantageous positions over one another so they can attempt submissions safely without exposing themselves to submissions.
The guard position is where your legs are used to hold your opponent while you’re on your back.
There are many variations of guard which we cover in our position guide, but one of the main variations you’ll hear about is closed or full guard. Closed guard is when your legs are closed around your opponent to reduce their movement:
Other guard styles mostly differ in how the legs are used to hold your opponent.
There’s also the open guard position, where the legs aren’t holding the opponent, but instead are kept uncrossed in front of your opponent as a way to defend against their passes. There are many ways to then attack your opponent from open guard. There are a variety of open guard leg configurations.
The mount position is where you straddle your opponent’s chest while kneeling over them. It’s a highly advantageous position for the practitioner on the top, because it allows you to control your opponent and submit them from relative safety.
It’s also advantageous from a self-defense perspective, because your opponent has less power available to them when punching.
Side control is when a practitioner lies chest-to-chest on their opponent, pinning their back and hips to the mat.
This is a great pinning position because of the weight that you can transfer to your opponent. Side control is used as the basis for other more advantageous positions such as mount, and submissions like the kimura or figure four armlock.
Back control or rear mount is when a practitioner gets behind their opponent and uses their legs and arms to control and submit them. Iconic submissions like the rear naked choke are available from back control.
In this position the practitioner has one of their knees on their opponent’s chest or abdominal area, while their opponent’s back is on the mat. This position gives the top practitioner a platform to get to more advantageous positions like the mount, and to attempt submissions.
Once a practitioner has a stable enough position, they will try to use submissions to make their opponent tap out, earning them an instant victory.
Submissions in BJJ fall into the categories of joint locks, chokes and strangles. Below are some of the most popular submissions in BJJ, but you can read our submissions guide to see an exhaustive list (there are over 45 at the time of writing!)
According to the Anatomical Study of Jiu Jitsu Joint Locks by Assaf Siani, a joint lock is when one bone is fixed in place while an attached bone is forced beyond its maximum range of motion, usually by pushing, pulling or rotating. For example in the case of the armbar, Siani explains that the forearm is fixed in place while the upper arm is forced upwards.
The armbar is an elbow joint lock where you hyperextend your opponent’s elbow.
To perform the armbar, a practitioner isolates their opponent’s arm using their legs, and then raises their hips upwards while pulling their opponent’s hand downwards.
The armbar and arm lock has a rich history. In judo the armbar is one of the official 29 techniques and is known as the ude hishigi juji gatame. The armlock is an iconic grappling submission seen in depictions of ancient wrestling:
The Kimura is a shoulder lock, where the opponent’s shoulder is fixed in place while their upper arm is internally rotated towards their back.
To successfully perform a kimura, the practitioner usually controls their opponent using their legs to prevent them from rolling out of it or moving away.
The kimura is named after Masahiko Kimura, a judoka who broke BJJ cofounder Helio Gracie’s arm with this technique in 1951.
Chokes and strangles
The guillotine is a submission where the practitioner compresses their opponent’s neck using their arms. The practitioner’s legs are used to hold their opponent in place and prevent them from moving out of the choke.
It’s a versatile submission that can be entered into from many positions, but is usually first taught to jiu jitsu students from the closed guard position.
Rear naked choke
The rear naked choke is an iconic grappling submission where the practitioner controls their opponent from behind and compresses their neck.
The rear naked choke is often seen in MMA fights in promotions like the UFC, and is a powerful submission that is difficult to escape.
In judo the rear naked choke is called the Hadaka-jime (which translates to naked or bare strangle). The judo version of this submission has a key difference in that the practitioner’s grip is often palm-to-palm rather than palm to bicep or shoulder as is often seen in BJJ.
The points system
One of the major contributions of the Gracie family to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the introduction of the points system, which created a hierarchy to the various positions an attacker could gain.
The points system rewards practitioners for getting dominant positions, taking their opponents down, or passing their opponent’s guard.
In their book Mastering Jiu Jitsu, Renzo Gracie and John Danaher explain that the point system was designed to mimic a real fight situation:
“Positions are awarded points based on the degree to which they would enable you to strike and control an opponent”.
They also explain that while judo and wrestling awarded few or no points for positions like back control, the Gracies realized this position could be devastating, and therefore awarded it a large number of points in competition.
We’ve covered this concept more fully in our guide to scoring points in BJJ, but here’s a brief list of the points for various positions in the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) ruleset:
- Guard pass
- Back control
- Back mount
Instant victory by submission
Regardless of how many points each practitioner has earned in a match, a successful submission earns a practitioner an instant victory.
Equipment and clothing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
What do you wear in BJJ?
There are two clothing styles in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: gi and no gi.
The gi is the traditional “kimono” worn in many other martial arts like Karate or judo. The gi worn in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is usually heavier and more durable than a karate gi because it can be gripped during rolls and even used to submit opponents.
In no gi jiu jitsu, practitioners wear rash guards and board shorts made from stretchy fabrics. Clothing cannot be gripped during a roll.
What’s the difference between gi and no gi?
Many BJJ gyms still teach the majority of classes in the gi, but the growing popularity of MMA competitions like the UFC has seen a rise in no gi classes and gyms.
No gi jiu jitsu can be faster and more explosive than gi jiu jitsu because practitioners cannot grip on each other’s clothing, and there’s less friction than when wearing a gi.
On the other hand, practitioners cannot use each others’ clothing for submissions, so there are fewer submissions available in no gi (although this still leaves the vast majority of submissions available).
Even though strikes are not permitted in BJJ, it’s still recommended to wear a mouthguard when rolling. This protects your mouth and teeth from injuries if you accidentally get hit in the face.
Our guide has a list of some of the best mouthguards to get you started.
What are you not allowed to wear in BJJ?
Rules may vary depending on the gym or competition ruleset, but the following are generally not allowed to be worn on the mat for safety and hygiene reasons:
- Groin protectors
- Protective headgear (although some head gear is permitted to cover the head in different competition rulesets and/or for religious purposes)
- Hair pins
If you’re in doubt about a piece of gear, check with your instructor.
The BJJ belt system
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s modern belt system includes five primary belts. Within each belt below black belt, there are usually four degrees or stripes that students must attain. Additional degrees are earned after attaining black belt.
We’ve written a full guide to the BJJ belt system, along with the time usually taken to receive a black belt, and what students should know at each belt level. Below is a table showing the different belts for adults:
And below is the belt system for kids:
Why is BJJ so popular today?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu benefited greatly from emerging victorious in the UFC. In the first UFC in 1993, Royce Gracie defeated the other contenders and instantly made observers curious about the martial art he used.
Other members of the Gracie family like Rickson and Renzo Gracie also won other high profile mixed martial arts championships during the 90s and early 2000s. These victories had a similar effect.
A large number of subsequent UFC champions over the years have also used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, growing the popularity of the art further.
In more recent years, BJJ has continued to grow thanks to popularizers like Joe Rogan, and celebrity practitioners like Tom Hardy, Mark Zuckerberg, Demi Lovato, Naomi Watts, Teri Reeves, Jonah Hill, Anthony Bourdain and Russell Brand.
You can see Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s popularity on Google since 2004 steadily increasing (with the exception of the pandemic).
And below you can see BJJ compared to Karate and Kung Fu. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the least popular of the three martial arts in Google searches at the time of writing but the gap is closing:
Today BJJ continues to grow for a number of reasons:
Completing a successful takedown, guard pass, sweep or submission can be very satisfying. At its core, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be very fun (although also very challenging).
It teaches you useful self-defense techniques
The Gracie family originally intended Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to be used for self defense, showcasing it to local police, and incorporating self-defense techniques into classes. At Gracie gyms, the syllabus still requires students to learn and demonstrate self defense techniques such as defenses against wrist grabs, strangles and bear hugs.
Most modern BJJ gyms focus on sports instead of self defense, but any student learning BJJ will still learn many ways to control and submit opponents if a fight ends up moving to the ground.
One reason why is because the points system rewards practitioners for gaining strong self-defense positions against opponents.
There’s no striking
While some may see this as a disadvantage, many do not want to train in a martial art where they may be punched or kicked during training, especially in the head. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you can spar at a high intensity and be relatively safe, although there are still risks like any martial art or sport.
It’s a great workout
Sparring or “rolling” is eye opening the first time you try it. When I had my first roll, I was in my early 20s and quite fit, and had never experienced energy and cardio depletion like it. Sparring in BJJ is a high intensity activity which may burn a high amount of calories. Rolls are usually five minutes long, and a class may have upwards of three rounds.
There are progression and mastery opportunities
As mentioned above, the belt system in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu starts at white belt, with three belts until the practitioner reaches black belt. Each belt below black belt also has four stripes or degrees. After black belt there are degrees or stripes awarded after receiving your black belt.
Jiu Jitsu gyms tend to grade and progress students differently. At my gym for example, students need to demonstrate a set syllabus of techniques to an instructor before gaining a stripe, and are then considered for their next belt promotion on a case-by-case basis. Regardless of how your particular gym grades students, attaining the next belts give you plenty of goals to aim for.
In addition to this, there are many different game styles in BJJ, so you can specialize in playing a particular guard style, and then learn a new one once you’re ready.
There are many competition opportunities each year
There are many BJJ competitions held every year in many locations around the world, so you can always test yourself against the best. These may be run by the IBJJF, or other organizations with their own rulesets like Grappling Industries or NAGA.
Frequently asked questions about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
What’s the difference between Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Japanese Jiu Jitsu is an older martial art than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in part based on it.
BJJ has a bigger focus on ground grappling and submissions, and has a significant sports component.
Japanese Jiu Jitsu has a bigger focus on throws and includes striking and blocking in addition to submissions. Some styles also incorporate traditional weapons training, and even weapon disarmament. Overall, it’s more focused on self defense and is aimed at being a complete combat system.
What’s the difference between judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is based in part on Judo, so the two martial arts share many similarities.
Judo is a Japanese martial art which focuses on throwing, submitting and/or holding an opponent down. Judo rules tend to keep practitioners fighting on their feet more than BJJ. Judo practitioners also train mostly exclusively in the gi.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on the other hand focuses more on the ground component of grappling. BJJ rules tend to encourage practitioners to fight on the ground, because there are more opportunities to score points. There are also fewer grip and submission rules in BJJ compared to Judo, so there are a larger variety of submissions in BJJ.
Most BJJ gyms and competitions also allow practitioners to wear “no gi” clothing, which comprises a rashguard and board shorts/spats.
The other key difference is that Judo is an Olympic sport, whereas BJJ is not.
Can you punch in BJJ?
No striking, including punching, kicking, elbowing or otherwise, is permitted in BJJ. As mentioned above, Gracie Jiu Jitsu gyms teach practitioners self defense techniques against punches, but don’t actually allow punching in sparring.
The exception to this is Combat Jiu-Jitsu, which allows open palm strikes to the face or body once the fight moves from standing to the ground.
Is BJJ safe?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has risks like any sport or martial art. According to research from 2014, BJJ competitions resulted in fewer injuries than wrestling, judo, MMA or taekwondo.
The most common injuries in this study were orthopedic injuries to the elbow, followed by the knee, and finally rib or costochondral fractures.
A more recent 2019 study of 759 practitioners found that 59.2% of practitioners experienced at least one injury over 6 months. The top three injury areas were the knees, shoulders and rib cage.
There are other health risks too, including cauliflower ear, which is when injuries to the ear cause the cartilage to overgrow. Cauliflower ear is an injury that can occur not only in BJJ but also rugby and some other martial arts. Ear guards can be worn to minimize the risk of cauliflower ear.
Skin infections can also occur in BJJ, because it’s a high-contact sport like wrestling or football. These include ringworm, impetigo, staph and more.
How many years does it take to master BJJ?
A general rule of thumb is that it takes 8-12 years to attain a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. A black belt indicates mastery, but in reality some practitioners might start to master parts of BJJ earlier as they specialize in different guard styles, submissions and more.
Each belt level in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gives practitioners the opportunity to get better and refine their jiu jitsu.
Will BJJ get me in shape?
Sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a great form of high intensity exercise. It’s difficult to accurately predict the amount of calories burned in BJJ due to a lack of scientific research, but we estimate 30 minutes of hard sparring could burn as many as 507 calories.
Regardless of exactly how many calories it burns, rolling for a few rounds during class will likely leave you feeling like you’ve gotten a great workout.
Is there anything about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu you still want to know? Let us know below.